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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Story of Pandora Radio

A radio station that learns from your preferences, and only plays music you like.

Now why didn’t I think of that?

Ten years ago, such an idea would have sounded like science fiction to most people, but not to Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora.com.

Westergren was a musician. He went in and out of bands that saw varying degrees of success. At one point, he took a job composing scores for films. Making music for movies, Westegren found, was a lot different than just jamming out with band mates. It was more direct, more calculating. He found that different directors liked different styles of musical composition. Westergren began to wonder if he could “codify” the tastes of the directors he was working for, to somehow break them down into something predictable, formulaic even.

This new, analytical way of looking at music became more than just a curiosity for Westergren. It led him to start a company that focused on decoding music, what he called the Music Genome, in order to bring people more of the sort of music they liked.

“We tried to build a business on different ways of using the Music Genome,” Westergren says. One of the ways they envisioned utilizing it was to integrate the technology into listening kiosks in music stores. This business plan quickly evolved, and with the help of some venture capital, the “Music Genome Project” was born in 2000.

The Music Genome Project is the backbone of Pandora Internet Radio. The goal of the project is to take music and boil it down to quantifiable data. Well, sort of quantifiable. Every song in the Genome’s library (there are over 700,000 with roughly 10,000 new songs being added each month) is analyzed by a “musicologist.” These musicologists are usually musicians themselves with strong backgrounds in music theory. They break down and rate over 400 attributes of every song, from the “soulfulness” of the vocals to the rhythmic and key changes in a given song.

Within four years of starting the Music Genome Project, Westergren was ready to launch Pandora.com.

Pandora is a free “Internet Radio” service. You start by picking a song or artist that you like. Pandora then creates a music station based on your selection. The station streams music that’s similar to the band or song you chose.

Maybe the coolest thing about Pandora is that it learns from your preferences. If you don’t like a song, you say so, and Pandora will refine the station with its newfound “knowledge” of your preferences.

Note: If you haven’t listened to it yet, check out the Why Didn’t I Think of That? story on Pandora.

It will also tell you why each song is appearing on your station.

For instance: I create a radio station based on the band The Small Faces. Then the song “In a Foreign Land” by the Kinks comes on. “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features electric rock instrumentation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, major key tonality and electric rhythm guitars.”

You know, I spent a lifetime refining my musical tastes. It’s almost insulting to have them broken down and reduced to their parts so calculatingly. Almost. Truth is, Pandora has turned me onto more good music than most of my hipster friends have.

And Pandora works with all kind of genres, including rap. When Raekwon comes on my Ghostface Killah station, Pandora’s reasoning for the song’s inclusion is: “because it features east coast rap roots, gangsta rap attitude, R&B influences, funk influences and danceable beats.” You can see why Bob and Greg refer to the categorizing system as “pseudo-scientific” in their WDITOT audio story. I can’t think of many things more subjective than “gangsta-attitude” and “danceable beats.” These aren’t quantifiable attributes we’re dealing with here.

It has the human touch you could say.

As great of an idea as Pandora is, it hasn’t been particularly smooth sailing. Westergren and some of his colleagues went for long stretches without getting paid, just to keep the startup afloat.

Thankfully, Pandora has been growing in popularity. Today it bosts over 35 million listeners. The release of the Pandora iPhone app helped seal the deal. The potential to stream Pandora straight to users’ phones was too much for music lovers to ignore, and the Pandora app quickly outsold the SiriusXM Radio iPhone App.

Though a 2007 ruling threatened to bury Pandora in soaring royalty prices, the matter was finally resolved last summer. “The revised royalties are quite high – higher in fact than any other form of radio,” Westeren wrote on Pandora’s blog. “The system as it stands today remains fundamentally unfair both to Internet radio services like Pandora, which pay higher royalties than other forms of radio, and to musical artists, who receive no compensation at all when their music is played on AM/FM radio.”

Even so, after a large lobbying efforts on the part of Pandora and other Internet radio stations, the royalties were reduced by several hundreths of a cent per song. It may not sound like much, but with thousands upon thousands of songs streamed every day (Pandora claims they get more than 65,000 new users alone in a 24-hour period) all those little fractions of pennies add up.

With recent annual revenues are around $20 million, the folks at Pandora are expecting to finally turn a profit this year.

No one said being a pioneer was easy. And with more and more competitors everyday, like Last.fm and the like, it looks like Internet radio might be the future of listening to music. Who knows? It may not be long before Pandora is streaming into your car stereo.

So if you haven’t done so already, check out Pandora for a few days. Let me know what you think. The way we listen to and consume music has already changed so much in the last 20 years, it’s possible that the change has just begun.


“The Song Decoders” — NY Times Magazine

“Pandora” — How Stuff Works

“Important Update on Royalties” — Pandora Blog

“Q&A: Tim Westergren”  — Electronic Musician

“Interview with Tim Westergren” — nPost

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